One of the most important cases concerning federal agencies and what they can do is the 1984 Supreme Court case of Chevron U.S.A. v. the National Resources Defense Council, which led to the creation of the Chevron doctrine. Chevron is also one of the most hotly debated decisions of the Court and the topic of extensive critique by conservative jurists.
What Is the Chevron Doctrine?
The Constitution allows Congress to delegate legal authority to federal agencies when necessary. But the more that U.S. society wants its federal government to do, the more need there is for federal agencies to carry out that work.
But who has the right to evaluate the decisions of a federal agency and to determine when that agency exceeds its legal authority? Normally, federal courts have that right, based on laws passed by Congress. But as the scope of the work carried out by federal agencies grows, so does the legislation concerning the authority of those agencies.
Sometimes, that governmental authority is difficult to determine based on the relevant legislation. The Chevron case, however, changed how the interpretation of the scope of power of a federal agency was determined.
The legislation in the Chevron case concerned The Clean Air Act, which created national air quality standards. This act also mandated that states that were not meeting those air quality standards were required to create a program to monitor and issue permits for large-scale polluters, such as manufacturing plants.
Based on this law, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created a policy that treated all pollution-emitting devices as part of the same category. The EPA’s policy said that manufacturing plants could install equipment without needing a permit, as long as this installation did not increase the total level of emissions from the plant.
This EPA policy was challenged by environmental groups. In the lower courts, it was determined that the creation of this policy went beyond the EPA’s scope of authority from Congress.
Later, the case went to the Supreme Court. The legal issue that the Supreme Court had to answer was, “Did the Clean Air Act clearly define the basis of the EPA’s policy?”
In a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens answered that Congress had created ambiguous legislation. Therefore, the EPA had the authority to form its own interpretation of the Clean Air Act.
The decision became known as the Chevron doctrine or Chevron deference. According to this doctrine, there is a two-step analysis courts can use when determining how a federal agency may interpret legislation from Congress:
- Was the intent of Congress clear in the legislation? If yes, then the intent will be followed. If Congress did not directly speak to the issue at hand, then the Chevron doctrine states that the review should go to step two.
- If the legislation is ambiguous, then the Court should defer to “reasonable interpretation” of the law by a federal agency.
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Why the Chevron Doctrine Is Criticized
Since 1984, the Chevron doctrine has been the topic of discussion in conservative jurisprudential circles. The main point of critique is the power that the Chevron doctrine gives to federal agencies.
Conservatives argue that U.S. federal agencies are becoming too powerful without the approval of Congress and that citizens’ freedom is more limited. Some experts state that federal agencies should limit their action to cases where Congress has a clear-cut intention to assign power to federal agencies.
In his recent book, The Chevron Doctrine: Its Rise and Fall, and the Future of the Administrative State, Thomas Merrill describes the influence of the Chevron doctrine. He also notes that the Chevron doctrine has received significant criticism and that there may be a need to reevaluate the doctrine and its influence on administrative law.
The new case that the Supreme Court will hear during its next term, Loper Bright Enterprises v. Gina Raimondo, could see a change in the power of federal regulatory agencies. This case has the potential to overturn Chevron.
Loper Bright Enterprises v. Gina Raimondo
In the Loper case, a group of herring fishermen from Cape May, New Jersey, are challenging a policy issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to Cause of Action Institute, the government has demanded that the fishermen pay fees of up to $700 per day for government inspectors to ride on their boats and ensure they comply with the law.
Zach Schonfeld of The Hill noted that an attorney for the fishing companies stated, “They forced these fishermen to pay money to government-mandated monitors to ensure that they comply with the law. That sounds to me a lot like law enforcement officers, people that are there to ensure the law is actually followed and forcing people to pay for those law enforcement officers with no authorization from Congress to do so.”
According to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the government has the right to place these inspectors on fishing boats. But the Magnuson-Stevens Act is ambiguous concerning who should pay for the government inspectors.
What Will Happen If Chevron Is Overturned?
With its final decision in the Loper case, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to change the core of administrative law and the way federal agencies conduct business. If Chevron is overturned, Congress will need to be much more careful in crafting clear, unambiguous legislation.
In turn, federal agencies will need to be more cautious when they create policies and interpreting the scope of their authority. This Supreme Court decision has the potential to dramatically change the way the government operates in view of the Chevron doctrine and will ultimately have an effect on laws, policies, and politics.